Till Easter Sunday morning, Mohammed Yusuf Ibrahim was among the pillars of Sri Lanka’s business community: a respected spice trader, and a leading figure in the Left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party, Ibrahim counted minister for industry and commerce Rishath Bathiudeen among his close friends, and had often been seen at former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s receptions.
His life changed that morning, when his oldest sons — 33-year-old Imsath Ahmed Ibrahim and 31-year-old Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim — left the family’s three-storey luxury home in Dematagoda and blew themselves up at the Cinnamon Grand and Shangri-La hotels’ breakfast buffets.
The brothers, Indian intelligence sources familiar with the case have told Firstpost, are believed to have entered the hotels’ breakfast buffets carrying identical explosives-packed bags, which they detonated at almost exactly the same time.
Investigators, the sources said, believe a third member of the group carried out a similar strike on the nearby Kingsbury Hotel, while a fourth suicide bomber blew himself up near the Shangri-La hotel, when confronted by police.
News that members of an elite Sri Lanka family may have been involved in the suicide bombings comes even as the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, saying “it targeted members of the United States-led coalition and Christians in Sri Lanka”.
Sri Lanka blasts: Two Colombo suicide bombers identified as millionaire businessmans sons, say intel sources
Photographs of three of the attackers, identified by nom de guerre adopted after they swore loyalty to the Islamic State, were also posted online.
Three hundred and twenty-one people are now officially confirmed to have died in the Easter bombings, which also left over 500 injured.
Efforts by Firstpost to contact the Ibrahim family, through an email listed on a Sri Lankan commerce website, did not elicit a response.
Sri Lanka has declared a state of emergency and launched a desperate hunt to head off more attacks.
Few real leads have emerged on what drove the brothers’ radicalisation, but police are now questioning Ibrahim and his third son, 30-year-old Ijas Ahmed Ibrahim, to learn how much they knew about their activities. The third floor of the family home, the sources said, appeared to have been booby-trapped with explosive devices which killed three police officers during a search.
From Ismail Ahmed Ibrahim, the family’s fugitive youngest son, investigators hope to be able to gather information on training camps run for the Easter attackers at a remote compound in Wanathawilluwa, as well as the precise nature of its motivation and links to transnational jihadist networks.
Early this year, police seized stockpiles of explosives, detonators and ammunition from the compound for bombing historic Buddhist monuments in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.
Ismail Ibrahim and other men trained at Wanathawilluwa played a role in attacks late last year to destroy Buddhist shrines and Church crosses, sources close to the investigation say. In March, they assassinated Mohamed Razak Taslim, secretary to highways minister Kabir Hashim, an outspoken critic of Islamists.
Less than 10 days before the attacks, Firstpost had reported on Monday that Sri Lanka police had circulated warnings, generated by India’s Research and Analysis Wing, about imminent suicide strikes against “popular Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission”.
The RAW warning, which sources say originated with the interrogation of an Islamist held by the Tamil Nadu Police, named Zahran Hashmi as the leader of the cell. It also provided locations of Hashmi’s younger brother and key operative Rilwan Hashmi and former Sri Lanka army soldier Badrudeen Mohammed Mohiudeen.
Founded as a franchise of the Tamil Nadu Tauhid Jama’at — a legal social service organisation of the religious right — Hashmi’s Tawhid Jama’at also built itself around protesting against real and perceived Muslim grievances. For example, Tawhid Jama’at also organised marches against the oppression of Myanmar’s Rohingya as well as Sri Lanka’s Buddhist-nationalist religious right wing.
Even though Hashmi had sworn loyalty to Islamic State three years ago, local authorities saw him as a publicity-hungry small-time politician on the make, cashing in on Muslim resentment.
Islamic State links
Hashmi and the Ibrahim brothers were, intelligence sources say, in fact at the heart of Islamist circles in Sri Lanka who sent at least 36 people into the Islamic State in Syria — most prominent among them Mohammad Muhsin Nilam, who was killed near Raqqa in a 2015 air strike. Even after Nilam’s death, Hashmi maintained contact with Sri Lankans in Syria using encrypted online chat.
Intelligence officials in India believe the Sri Lanka jihad cell also maintained contacts with Islamic State veterans from Bangladesh and Maldives, though it remains unclear what degree of contact they had with the jihadist group’s leadership in West Asia.
“This was a cell that was inspired by the Islamic State and its message,” says one Indian intelligence official familiar with the case. “It’s likely, though, that its actual operations were driven by regional networks, not the Islamic State’s central leadership.”
The Tawhid Jama’at, interestingly, showed no signs of being drawn to violence until 2018, beyond involvement in some small-scale clashes with traditionalist Muslim organisations opposed to its politics.
For his part, Hashmi confined his public activities to using social media for polemics against Muslim shrines and syncretic religious practices, which he claimed were un-Islamic.
Precisely what tipped Hashmi from being a neo-fundamentalist to a terrorist will emerge slowly, but this we know: his journey traversed ground covered by many others across the region over the centuries.